MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
‘If we were to enter by night the main square of a small town, let’s call it Kükenstadt, in Lower Saxony (judging by the architecture and the signs above the shops lining the square), we would find the atmosphere typical of such towns after midnight. Everything so wondrously quiet that it puts one in mind of the dormitory at a summer camp for obedient children; every house in its place with the night tucked up under its eaves; the whispering about the cares and events of the day fallen silent. A small boy with an umbrella has incorporated the town into his realm.
The boy may have continued his marauding westwards, but he has not left the little town of Kükenstadt entirely at the mercy of its dreams: in the middle of the square a statue keeps watch over the citizens.
It is the sculpture of a chick, caught mid-sprint, its neck thrust out and head raised to the sky, beak gaping wide and stubby wings cocked. The blue moon is mirrored in the black marble like a night-light left burning for a child who is afraid of the dark.
It is from this chick that the town draws its name, and despite its diminutive size – only about seven times larger than a living chick, and that’s not saying much – it ensures the inhabitants of Kükenstadt more peaceful rest than most big city saints can grant their flocks, for in the hearts of the sleepers the memory lives on of how the chick saved their forebears from being slain by a ferocious berserker who once rampaged across the Continent, annihilating everything in his path.
But were it not for the fact that my life-story begins in this very town which owes its existence to an inquisitive chick; yes, if it did not begin here, in a three-storey building on the square, we would tiptoe out of the dormitory town of Kükenstadt, closing the door softly behind us.
* * *
There’s a sound of moaning coming from the building, as those who have an ear for houses will notice, but these are not the sighs of the suffering or the sick, oh no, these are the agonised moans of ecstasy, the crescendo of sexual climax; the groan that results from being bitten on the neck and gripped tight around the buttocks.’
‘So it’s a whorehouse, then?’
‘A creeper sprawls across the front of the house, parting round the windows and the sign over the entrance: GASTHOF VRIESLANDER. The plant is in such a tangle under the eaves that it looks as if it’s about to lift the roof off.’
‘Lift it off! I want to see inside, see who’s moaning…’
‘This is no longer a house of pleasure but an ordinary guesthouse, run by an honest couple who upped sticks and abandoned their farm to make way for an autobahn. They didn’t get much for it, but God and good luck were on their side and they bought this den of iniquity for a song when the Party outlawed immorality from the land.’
‘Lift it off!’
‘Close your eyes, then. Can you picture the square? The chick and the shops? Gasthof Vrieslander, the tangled creeper and the roof? Good. No, don’t open your eyes. I’m going to put my hand inside your forehead – yes, go ahead and wrinkle it – and now you can watch it entering over the square, pale grey like a monster’s claw in the ghostly glow from the street lights and the moon over the church.’
‘God, how weird your hand looks – so huge. And what long nails you’ve got, I hadn’t noticed that before—’
‘Shh, concentrate! I press my thumb against the eaves of the roof at the front, grip the join with my fingers and gently prise the whole thing off, taking care not to break the chimney.’
‘Yes, we wouldn’t want to wake anyone.’
‘Then swing it over the square with a smooth flick of my wrist and set it down, and now the chick has acquired a roof over its head. More importantly, it can’t see what we’re up to. Listen to it cheeping with curiosity: “Can I see? Can I see?”’
‘Oh, it’s so adorable.’
‘Don’t feel sorry for it. It’ll soon give up protesting and stick its beak under its wing.’
‘Goodnight, little chick.’
‘It’ll fall asleep while we carry on exploring the house. Can you see me poking my long fingernails into the joint between the façade and the gables?’
‘And pulling the façade forwards?’
‘The joints are cracking like sugar glue.’
‘Now I’m laying it down on the square.’
‘It’s just like a doll’s house.’
‘Indeed. Here on the ground floor is the reception with an office leading off it; directly opposite the desk you can see the door to the dining room, and through that door there, the one with the oval window, is the kitchen. As you see, there’s nothing indecent going on here: the guests are respectably asleep in their rooms on the three floors, while the staff lie work-worn in their beds under the rafters.’
‘So what are those noises coming from the office, then? From what I can hear it sounds like panting and gasping.’
‘You’re quite right, let’s take a peep inside and see who’s panting…’
‘In a deep leather chair at the desk a red-haired youth sits hunched over the yellowing photographs of buxom girls, his hand working away in his lap…’
‘Who’s the pervert?’
‘The guesthouse servant boy, an orphan the couple brought with them from the countryside, who they use to do the chores no one else wants to.’
‘What’s his connection to your story?’
‘He’s only really a minor character, poor thing, but all will be revealed later: I’m not telling the story here and now, merely setting the scene. Well, do you notice anything else unusual when you see the house opened up like this?’
‘Well, take a look. How many rooms are there on each floor, for example? I’m not saying any more…’
‘If I lift off the upper storeys so that you can look down on the first floor from above as if it was a maze, what happens?’
‘That’s what you mean, ah, now I see…’
‘The rooms on the first floor of the Gasthof Vrieslander have secret doors concealed in the wallpaper. They open into narrow, winding passageways that lead to the priest’s hole, a compartment behind the panelling of room twenty-three.
This once provided a refuge for the spiritual and secular leaders of the town, and any others who were forbidden from being seen in the company of ladies of pleasure, for the madam’s house contained many rooms to cater for the diverse needs of her children.
But what the mayor and priest didn’t know was that for a handsome sum the ordinary guests of the brothel could watch them through a peephole in the wall of room twenty-three; so the proportions of the pillars of society were on everybody’s lips, so to speak.’
‘But who’s that? Oh, she slipped round the corner. It was a woman, wasn’t it?’
‘You’ve got a good pair of ears. That’s an old man who lives at the guesthouse, because houses that play a major role in stories generally have a pensioner or two thrown in.’
‘He looked awfully effeminate in that nightie, with his arms held out in front of him like a hare…’
‘You hit the nail on the head there. His name’s Tomas Hasearsch, or “hare’s arse”, and he’s lived at the guesthouse ever since he was a boy.’
‘Then he must have a tale or two to tell from the days when clients could expect to find more than just a hot-water bottle waiting for them in their rooms.’
‘Wait, I’ll get him. Come on, old chap, stand here at the edge of the floor.’
‘Yes, he sleepwalks, wandering the passages like a ghost in an English spine-chiller. He sometimes talks in his sleep too, and he can be pretty crude at times, I can tell you.’
‘God, it must give the guests the creeps to be woken by the sound of indecent whisperings through the walls.’
‘Shh! He’s moving his lips, lifting his geriatric blue hand and addressing the sleeping town—’
‘Can I see? Can I see?’
‘Quiet, chicken! This is unsuitable for young birds.’
‘Yes, shame on you for thirsting after smut!’
‘The old man goes on: There you are, poppet, ah, bring the towel here, pass Bellalolalululili something to dry herself with. So Lululilibellalola’s little man was spying, was he? And did he see something nice? No, goodness me, child, that’s nothing compared to his cannon; no, I’m not telling anyone his name: he comes here in the mornings when most of the others have left, my heart’s angel, wearing a black mask, and I’m the only person that knows who he is – well, and maybe one other. Oof, now Lolabellalililulu’s tired, be a good boy, rub some ointment on her bruises and tell her some funny gossip from town … What’s the postmaster been up to?’
‘Stop that right now – he’s grabbing his crotch!’
‘The old man continues: If boysy’s good to Lililolalulubella she’ll play with the little chap, she’ll give her little boy something nice around his winkle, oh yes, she will…’
‘Don’t get carried away with this filth.’
‘All right, all right. The old man falls silent – there, I’m pushing him back into the passage, and now I’m up to my elbow in the picture you’ve conjured up of Kükenstadt town square.’
‘Is there anything else I ought to see? I’m feeling a bit dizzy…’
‘Ready, now I’ll snap the upper storeys back on, then the front, and the roof on top. And now I’ll whip my arm out of your head…’
‘All I can see are yellow spots, shooting in front of my eyes like comets, but when I close my eyes the square appears just as you originally described it, only now I can see inside the guesthouse, I’m familiar with every nook and cranny.’
‘But don’t you notice a change from earlier? We’re drawing closer to the story and its first signs should be visible…’
‘Yes, wait a minute, that’s strange, now there’s a light shining in one of the attic windows…’
‘Marie-Sophie X is asleep.’
‘She’s the woman I come closest to calling my mother.’
‘A young girl sat reading a book in bed, the eiderdown in a ruck at her feet and her soles resting on the monogram embroidered on the cover in cross-stitch. She had piled up the pillows behind her back and tucked a cushion on to her lap, on which she was resting the book. A candle stub flickered in a holder on the chest of drawers by the bed, casting a syrupy yellow light over the contents of the room. There wasn’t much: a chair, a wardrobe, a chamber-pot, an oval mirror and a gaudy picture of a saint hovering in a forest clearing with a little hut in his hands. A maid’s black uniform hung from a hanger on the wardrobe door, books lay heaped on the chair. There were two doors to the room, one leading to the staff lavatory, the other to the landing.
The girl drew an invisible thread from word to word with a bitten-down nail, sensing the writing between the lines with her fingertips. Every now and then she would close her clear blue eyes and ponder what she had been reading, and her left hand would lift of its own accord to fiddle with the dark plait that lay over the lace front of her nightgown. Every time she turned a page she frowned, and when the story was full of action she rubbed her big toes together and drew up her feet.
She paused increasingly often to reflect on the book. The clock on the floor below chimed three and a moment later the silver bell in the town-hall tower struck four.
— This book’s a bloody thief of time. Oh well, I’ll read one more page, then I’m going to sleep.
* * *
— And the comets?
— They’re angel dandruff, which burns up in the outermost layers of the atmosphere and the ash falls to earth where it turns into tiny guardian spirits for the smallest animals, plants and minerals, just as the volcanic ash from Mount Hekla has its origin in the embers that swirl from the devil’s beard when he’s careless around the fires of hell, but they, on the other hand, turn into demons that fight the good spirits for power over all living things. So the battle between good and evil is waged even in your socks – they look to me as if they’re made of cotton.
— What nonsense is the man telling you, little Siegfried?
— He was telling me about the stars.
— Is that so? We must be getting home now.
— What about elephants? Are there devils in elephants too?
— Come on, I said!
— Goodness me, yes, there must be quite a battle being waged in them.
— And in my braces?
— Ugh, yes!
— COME ON!
The slave was left standing alone by the hut as the man took the boy by the hand and led him over to the gate where the guards saluted and let them through. He watched father and son climb into a gleaming Mercedes-Benz and drive away.
* * *
— Can I talk to you?
— Talk to me.
— You’re alone.
— All alone.
— Darkness hangs over the land.
— I can see it through the skylight; there are no stars.
— I looked out over the earth: it was asleep.
— Everyone except me.
— You too.
— But I’m reading a book.
— You’re asleep.
— Am I asleep? Oh my God, is the candle still alight?
— It is burning, as you too will burn.
— Now I’m in for it. This is an old house; it could burn to the ground in a flash!
— I’ll watch it for you.
— It’s hard to find anyone to talk to these days. No one dreams any more; the cities are blacked out and the only sign of life among humans is the breath that rises from their houses on a cold winter’s night. But then I noticed you. You were dreaming; that’s how I found you.
— Me dreaming? I wasn’t dreaming; you were drawn to the light. Oh Lord, I’ve forgotten to close the shutter! I must wake up. Wake me up, whoever you are.
— Call me Freude.
— That’s no answer. Wake me up.
— I’m the Angel of the West Window, the skylight above you, and I’ve blacked it out – you needn’t worry.
— Are you here in my room?
— Yes, I’m always in your window, at your window.
— This is a fine mess you’ve got me into! I’m not allowed to entertain male guests at night. You’d better get lost double-quick or we’ll both end up in hot water. She’s tough on morality, the Inhaberin – the proprietor’s wife.
— Well, I’m not exactly male.
— I don’t care; your voice is deep enough. Get out!
* * *
The slave returned to the work hut, to his comrades in slavery, to the supervisors and the ceramic falcons that stood on the shelves, their fierce eyes glaring out over their creators: a shaven-headed congregation of men who kneaded them and formed them from black clay.
It was hot in the hut: cruel birds like these had to be fired in vast kilns in which the white flames licked the spread wings and splayed claws.
He silently resumed his work, dabbing yellow paint on to the eyes before the falcons went back into the fire.
* * *
— I’m not going anywhere, I can’t!
— Then shut up and let a tired chambermaid get some sleep!
— I’m bored …
— I’m not a diversion for bored angels.
— What were you dreaming?
— What kind of question is that? Didn’t you just say you’d been drawn to my dream?
— Yes, but you must describe it to me.
— I want to know who you are; I’m not accustomed to describing my nonsensical dreams to strangers.
— But I’m not a stranger, I’m always with you.
— Well, I like that! You may hang around my window, thinking you know me, but I don’t know the first thing about you. For all I know, you may be a scoundrel, planning to get me in the family way.
— Now, now …
— Don’t now, now me, my good man. It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the world that one of your lot has had his wicked way with a woman.
The girl tosses and turns in her sleep and the book slips from her hand, but the angel catches it before it falls to the floor. He opens it at random and skims the text.
— I see here on the left-hand page that the slave has finished digging his way under the perimeter fence of the camp. Let me read a bit for you – then perhaps you’ll remember the dream …
— Oh, for goodness’ sake read, then at least you won’t keep prattling!
* * *
When he sticks his head up out of the hole a crow flaps by over the pale field, croaking: Krieg! Krieg! He vanishes back into the ground for a moment, then a suitcase and a pink hatbox with a black lid appear on the edge of the hole.
* * *
— That’s nothing like the story I was reading …
* * *
He crawls out of the hole and takes a deep breath. It’s unbelievable how fresh and invigorating the night air smells out here in the field; unthinkable that this is the same air that lies like a stinking fog over the village of death behind him.
* * *
— That’s nothing like my book …
— But this is what you were dreaming.
— You must be joking. I was reading a love story.
— When you fell asleep the story continued in your dream, taking a new direction. I’ve read the book from cover to cover, but this is a new edition. Listen:
* * *
But he can’t dwell on his thoughts about the sky: he’s on the run. Carefully picking up the hatbox, he wedges it firmly under his left arm, seizes the handle of the suitcase and sets off in the direction of the forest, leaving …
* * *
— Which is what you should do.
— He’s on his way here.
— So what? As far as I’m concerned, the people I dream about are welcome to visit me. Go and find your own book to fall asleep over …
— Goodnight, Marie-Sophie.
Copyright © 2016 by Sjón
Translation copyright © 2018 by Victoria Cribb